Most every Wednesday, I gather with a small group of people to read a bit of scripture, say a few prayers, and chat for a while about one saint or another. This week’s saint is a particular favorite of mine because, as I told our gathering this week, I think he would get me. I’m the kind of person who considers reading a 600 page biography of a 16th century Archbishop of Canterbury to be a guilty pleasure. Seeing this, illustrated in cursive neon on my Insta story, my son replies, simply, “NERD!” If the duct-taped glasses fit…
But this saint we were talking about, his name was Bede. Bede the Venerable, to be precise, and that same child did give me an icon of this patron of scholars and historians for Christmas a couple of years ago. He’s venerable because an angel said he is, apparently filling in the blanks MadLibs style on his tombstone. One assumes the angel was also a nerd and read Bede’s tome An Ecclesiastical History of the English People which was the first history of the English Church, and maybe even of England period.
One can imagine the challenge of this task, given that Bede not only lacked access to the copious amounts of data stored in server farms but even artificial sources of light that did not require rendering beef tallow. It gets worse though. Bede did not even have a timeline to work off of, and I don’t just mean that he needed something that said “Claudius reigned from 41 to 54 AD and was followed by Nero who reigned until 68.” He didn’t even have AD or BC (or CE and BCE) to work with.
So he made it up. Yep, Bede made up the system we have today for putting events in chronological order. He took the birth of Christ (as best he could figure it out) and made that the reference point around which everything else would be ordered. So, if something was recorded as having happened in the 4th year of the reign of Claudius then he would figure out that Claudius started ruling 41 years after Jesus was born and then set the date of the event at 45 AD (“AD” being an abbreviation of “Anno Domini,” a Latin phrase meaning “In the year of our Lord.” Which assumes everyone recognizes Christ as supreme lord, as safe enough assumption in 8th century England.)
You can probably see the advantage of having a central point around which to organize a list of events. I mean, you have to start somewhere, right? Might as well start with the birth of Christ. Or maybe his baptism? Or, come to think of it, his crucifixion (which is probably the only historically verifiable event in the story of Jesus.) Or perhaps the resurrection? And while we are at it, let’s throw in the ascension. Maybe the problem is evident. Having a point around which to date things is important, but which point do you pick?
Obvs, Bede had a reason for picking the point he did. I assume he laid out his reasoning in the treatise On the Nature of Things and On Times. It’s my birthday, so if you want, you can buy that for me today. Or whenever, really. Dates are arbitrary, is what I’m arguing. We give Bede props for setting up this system of organizing things chronologically, but what importance does it really have, theologically speaking?
Because in eternity, it’s not like the movie that we call our life just keeps playing and playing as if it were a cosmic Jerry Garcia solo. Eternity, being all of time, is no time. Compare it to the physical universe, which is in a constant state of expansion. We thought for centuries that the earth occupied a special, central place in the universe. Which, from one perspective, it does. But you can apply that perspective to any other spot in the universe and it would be special and central too.
So that’s the way it works with time. We apply special status to certain times and events. We also seem to think that we are moving from one event to the next, from one unique place in time to the next. But if eternity is a thing, then no particular place in time is any more significant than another. And we’re not moving anywhere. We are always, simply, here.
That may be good news, and it may be bad news. It seems like good news if your material situation is such that you’re pretty darn comfortable. It seems like bad news if you think your job is to work on making things better, bending the long arc of history toward justice. If you’re counting on being on the right side of a history that has neither sides nor existence, you’re pretty well screwed.
But consider this: as he stepped onto the Edmund Pettis bridge, toward a phalanx of state troopers and attack dogs, John Lewis said that he had to realize that the kingdom for which he longed in some way already existed. His job was not so much to bring it into existence as to make its reality visible in the midst of the feature film up there on the cave wall. It’s not about being vindicated on the future scorecard of history, but to realize that every moment is one of reckoning.
There’s something about that sense of immanent reckoning that pervades the a lot of great music, including the music of the Grateful Dead. Arguably, musicians have a more attuned sense of the precarious eternity of any given moment since they know that these particular notes will never, ever come together in just this way again. All of their lives, they work to perfect a craft and hone a set of skills to create invisible and fleeting waves in the air, dissipating into memories and, if they are lucky, grooves of vinyl, electromagnetic polarities, or strings of ones and zeroes. And yet they step on the stage again, chasing an ethereal experience in the belief, the faith, and the hope that it means something. Not necessarily in history, but right now.